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One Year Later: The day sports stood still

Hear from five local coaches as they reflect on how their 2020 seasons were cut short due to COVID-19 and the impact on their team and themselves.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn — On March 12, 2020, the Southeastern Conference canceled the men's basketball tournament in Nashville, Tennessee. Shortly after, the entire NCAA tournament, for both the men's and women's teams was canceled as well. Spring sports and its championships, both on the high school and college level, were soon to follow. A year later, five local coaches reflected on the day their respective sports were canceled, what they've learned and where we go from here.

Rick Barnes, Tennessee men's basketball coach

"It's coming up on almost a year to the day, I think," Barnes said before the start of the SEC Tournament. He was in Nashville when the news came down. "I remember being interviewed real quick and then in the middle of an interview with Bob Kesling and they came up and said the game's been canceled and it was it seemed very, the whole thing was surreal leading up to that."

The night before, the NBA suspended its season after Jazz All-Star center Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19.

"The most surreal part about it is we're a year later, it seems in some ways, like it's been forever, but yet, cause it's, I think it's been a long trying year for everybody."

Barnes said players and coaches are grateful to be able to do what they love and play basketball, but know they are far from safe, even as COVID-19 numbers across the country drop.

"We all know that we're not out of the woods by any stretch. I mean, this is our third day of what? 10 straight days of being tested, and you just every time you come in there, you know you're holding your breath the next morning hoping that everything's coming back comes back negative." 

Multiple teams in Power Five, including Kansas, Duke and Virginia, have had to remove themselves from conference tournaments after a positive COVID-19 test on the team.

RELATED: Tennessee Basketball takes down Florida, 78-66

Kellie Harper, Tennessee women's basketball coach

"When we played our final game, we had the anticipation that we were going to be playing more basketball. So it was just awkward, really," Kellie Harper said before the team's trip to Greenville for the SEC Tournament. The Lady Vols played its final game on March 6, a loss to Kentucky in the SEC Tournament. Tennessee was on the bubble, but was expected to make the final cut and get in the big dane. 

"And then it was so fast. Everything happened so quickly and you know, it really never felt like last year ended. It just felt like last year kind of blended into the summer."

This season, Tennessee is 16-7 with a chance to earn a four-seed or better in the NCAA Tournament in Harper's second year.

"I'm looking forward to, to taking this team, not only to the SEC Tournament, but to the NCAA tournament and giving them a chance and seeing what we can do."

Tony Vitello, Tennessee baseball head coach

"We were here packed, the bus was packed, and we were told we cannot go to South Carolina. That was the appropriate action that was taken, but to be told you can't do something that you're prepared for any love to do is very frustrating," Vitello said of the day the season was put on pause and ultimately canceled. 

What made it even more difficult for the Vol baseball team, UT had one of its best starts to the season in program history, sitting at a 15-2 record, leading the nation in home runs. All of that was cut short.

In Vitello's eyes, he said the season is considered a success if you get to play through your schedule.

"You never know when tomorrow is not going to come so you know, take advantage of what you got or any other clichés you want to throw at that topic."

Karen Weekly, Tennessee softball co-head coach

The baseball team was close with their bags packed on the bus, but the softball team was moments from departure. Weekly said the first player on the team was ready to hand their boarding pass at the gate to hop on a plane and fly to take on Texas A&M for a weekend series. 

"At that point in time, I don't think it was as devastating as it would be later. Just a lot of uncertainty, a lot of questions. What do you think's gonna happen? And you found yourself saying, I don't know, I don't know, I don't know, to everything.... As a coach, you're supposed to have the answers, right? And you have no answers to give your team. And that was very difficult."

Weekly said the initial decision was to keep players on campus for a few days, instead of sending them home immediately. It was right after a practice that the news about the season being canceled hit the team.

"We're just finishing up that workout and a lot of the girls were just hanging around on the field, it was sort of like they had this premonition because they just wanted to be together."

"One person had gotten into the locker room and all of a sudden they came back out with their phone and said there's a tweet that says the NCAA has just canceled the season. And I think that was the toughest part was finding out like that, and not having a chance as a coaching staff for (co-head coach) Ralph (Weekly) and I to digest that and then deliver that message to the team."

Weekly said it was, of course, difficult on the seniors especially, but it was the words of another Tennessee coach that helped her when she needed it most.

"I was raised in a home where you didn't dwell on what happened or what might happen, you put one foot in front of the other and you just keep going. And actually, when I first heard Pat Summitt, say, right foot, left foot breathe, I thought, 'wow, that's what my parents taught me my whole life,' they just didn't use those words. So, for me, that's really the approach I took to it was, okay, just put one foot in front of the other and keep going and don't try to get too caught up in the what ifs or what might have been."

Jonathan Netherland, Austin-East soccer coach

The cancellation of high school sports took a bit longer, mid-April is when the decision finally came down. For Austin-East head soccer coach Jonathan Netherland, that didn't make it hurt any less. The final game the team played was in March at Webb.

"At the coaches referee meeting at the beginning of the game, they let us know, hey, this might be the last game you'll play. Play your hardest. Play your hearts out, everything's uncertain," Netherland said.

The circumstances around high school sports are different than at the college level. The access to facilities, mentorship, even at times food, are incredibly important for players as they move closer toward graduation.

"At that exact moment, it was a punch to the gut. I just, we know, we put so much into it when it comes to feeding our kids, motivation, working with them in the weight room and on the field. With me being at home and you know, isolating, I was able to let go and release. I was sad. And I was, you know, just as confused as everyone else."

The times have been difficult, Netherland said he's have family die in the past year from COVID-19 as well as suicide. As COVID-19 cases fall in Knox County, Netherland said it means the world to him, just to have the opportunity to spend an afternoon on the field with his students.

"I feel blessed every moment that I'm out here, because this is something that doesn't have to be had. We don't have to have sports. We don't have to have soccer."

With the start of a new season just on the horizon, Netherland said his mentality has shifted, with coaching and with life.

"It's not all about purpose anymore. It is literally about every moment and every second that we spend with each other and the memories that we can create."

RELATED: One year later: How life has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic

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